This certainly applies to our treatment of animals. There are some extremists who would equate the dignity of animals with that of humans, failing to understand that human abilities are exceptional and unique due to the capacities of our soul, made in the image of God. Others think it immoral for us to make use of animals as beasts of burden or for necessary food. Still others think that animal companions can replace healthy human relationships (rather than merely augment them).
But whatever the extremes and errors of our time, our animals do have important roles in helping us to become more human. St. Thomas Aquinas set forth the paradoxical notion that animals can help us to be more humane and more human:
Blood was forbidden, both in order to avoid cruelty, that they might abhor the shedding of human blood, as stated above (3, ad 8) … For the same reason they were forbidden to eat animals that had been suffocated or strangled: because the blood of these animals would not be separated from the body: or because this form of death is very painful to the victim; and the Lord wished to withdraw them from cruelty even in regard to irrational animals, so as to be less inclined to be cruel to other men, through being used to be kind to beasts (Summa Theologica, I, IIae, 102, art 6, ad 1).
St. Thomas links the avoidance of excessive cruelty to animals with a greater respect and gentleness for human life. As any psychotherapist or exorcist will tell you, the penchant for cruelty to human beings in sadists and murderers often began (usually in childhood) with cruelty to animals. Further, kindness to animals can help augment kindness to fellow human beings.
While distinct from animals, we share many bodily similarities including sensitivity to pain and suffering. It is a grave defect of character to be insensitive to the suffering of sentient creatures, animal or human. It is a not a far journey from relishing inflicting pain on animals to enjoying doing the same to human beings.
On a more positive note, as we learn to be patient and gentle with animals (especially pets), we can acquire the skills to be patient and gentle with our fellow humans. Admittedly, though, human beings are far more complicated and far less innocent than animals, whose behavior we can easily excuse.
This also helps debunk a demand for equivalence that sometimes emerges. The usual complaint goes something like this: “You’re kinder to your dog than you are to me!” Perhaps on some level this may be true, but our relationship to our pets is different because we reasonably expect less from them. They do not have rational souls and cannot be expected to behave justly or reasonably. But fellow human beings need more correction and must answer to a higher set of standards. Thus we are reasonably harder on them, given the nature of our relationship with them and what is rightly expected of them. Correction of a human person who may one day merit Heaven or Hell is more important for him than it is for an animal, which has no such consequences attached to its actions. So, it makes sense that we are harder on one another and expect more than we do from our animals.
That said, learning to express patience and kindness to an animal does help us to learn the language of kindness and gentleness that can, and often should, be granted to fellow human beings. It helps to awaken and train a tenderness in us.
In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas also comments on the prohibition of boiling a kid goat in the milk of its mother:
Although the kid that is slain has no perception of the manner in which its flesh is cooked, yet it would seem to savor of heartlessness if the [mother’s] milk, which was intended for the nourishment of her offspring, were served up on the same dish (Summa Theologica I, IIae, 106 art. 5 ad 4).
Although Thomas does state other reasons for the prohibition (e.g., that it is the practice of the pagans), the avoidance of cruelty is stressed.
Pointless cruelty is never a good thing to allow in the human person, even if it is (only) directed toward lower forms of life. It is too easily transferred to the way we regard and treat one another.
Kindness to animals, therefore, is an important virtue to cultivate. We need not embrace excesses such that we fail to make proper use of animals as God intended (to assist us and even to be food for us). Neither must we bestow rights on them that have no corresponding duties or presuppose qualities they do not have. But pointless cruelty to animals that does not recognize their status as sentient beings harms not only them but us as well.
The paradox, then, is this: Our humanity is partially nurtured by our treatment of and experience with animals, both wild and tame. Kindness to animals, even if a virtue subject to excessive and even bizarre applications today, remains an important virtue for us.
The picture at the upper right is of my cat, Jewel (a.k.a. Jewel the Kidda, L’il Girl, and The Queen of Sheba).